How A Quick Trip Outside Can Make All The Difference For Your Sleep Cycle

For many people, sleep is more of a frienemy than a friend. You want to love it, but instead find yourself constantly struggling to fall asleep, stay asleep, or wake up without feeling groggy every morning. Instead of enjoying a good night's rest and facing each new day with a spring in your step, you reach for the closest source of caffeine and resign yourself to life as a sleep-deprived zombie. If this sounds familiar, it could be an issue with your sleep cycle.

According to the CDC, 1 in 3 American adults don't get enough sleep. And this has deeper ramifications than just feeling tired throughout your day. A consistent lack of quality rest can contribute to serious health issues, from heart disease and diabetes to higher risks of stroke, obesity, and depression (per the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute).

In short, sleep is critical to your general well-being. But it's not always easy to commit to a better sleep schedule. Many people grapple with insomnia, whether they lay awake rehashing old arguments or find themselves scrolling social media until two in the morning. Fortunately, there is some good news for anyone hoping to improve their sleep naturally: Researchers now suggest that spending just a short time outside each day could help rebalance your sleep cycle and contribute to a healthier lifestyle.

Improve your sleep cycle in less than 20 minutes

When your sleep schedule is out of whack, it can create a domino effect impacting all other areas of your life. Also known as your circadian rhythm, your sleep-wake cycle has a direct effect on your hormone levels, alertness, and mental health (via Sleep Foundation). If you're not sleeping well, you may struggle to concentrate or complete tasks, as well as feel more short-tempered and irritable.

In a cruel twist of fate, this connection is a two-way street, as poor health can also impact your sleep and circadian rhythm. But according to a study in Scientific Reports, it only takes 120 minutes outdoors each week to contribute to a better sense of health and well-being. That comes out to a mere 17 minutes per day. And when your body and mind are at ease, your sleep schedule is more likely to stay on track.

Furthermore, spending time outdoors can help stabilize your sleep-wake cycle through exposure to natural light. Your circadian rhythm naturally responds to light in your environment and will try to align itself with sunrise and sunset through the production of melatonin, a hormone that helps you drift peacefully off to sleep when darkness falls (via The Sleep Doctor). But if you aren't getting sufficient natural light, this schedule can go off the rails and disturb your sleep patterns.

Ideally, it's best to get outside and absorb natural light early in the day. "Every single human, just as soon as possible after waking up, should go outside and get at least 15 minutes of direct natural light," sleep medicine specialist Michael Breus, Ph.D., tells WebMD. But even if you're not a morning person, you can find other opportunities to take a quick trip outside.

Easy ways to spend more time outdoors

One of the best ways to increase your time outdoors is to reap the health benefits of forest bathing. This practice, which originates in Japan, revolves around relaxing outside and experiencing nature with all of your senses. The idea is to fully absorb the natural world without distractions. Not only can this help your sleep cycle, but forest bathing has also been linked to lower stress and blood pressure, better immunity, increased focus, and improved levels of vitamin D. And you don't have to have a forest nearby to get involved — while it's called forest bathing, you can implement this practice in any natural environment.

If you'd like to supplement your outside time with some gentle exercise, you can also try the growing fad of soft hiking. With an eye toward exploration and accessibility, soft hiking removes the competitive or athletic emphasis from nature walks, allowing you to stroll at your own pace, take as many breaks as you need, and fully enjoy the scenery around you. Even if you wouldn't consider yourself an athlete, the soft hiking philosophy welcomes people of all fitness levels and abilities.

Of course, these are far from the only ways to spend more time outdoors. To reach your 17 minutes per day without making a special errand out of it, consider simpler tactics like eating your lunch outside, taking a walk around the block, or riding your bike to work. Wherever you can wedge in some easy time in nature, you'll be supporting a smoother sleep cycle and better overall health.